Occasionally I get messages along the lines of “can I share this?” Sometimes people want to copy, use, or replicate my writing. And why not? I’m basically setting up the steno media empire so that we can all benefit from the expansion of our industry.
In the United States, copyright is automatically granted for any kind of creative work. Stenonymous’s blend of news and commentary certainly carries as a creative work, and to the extent that it is, I own copyright to it. But it’s my public promise that I will never, ever enforce copyright on any blog post posted to Stenonymous.
That said, some of the images or writing I use, I do not own the copyright to. Some of it I use under fair use doctrine. In a nutshell, the government acknowledges the importance of creative works in advancing humanity. After all, look at the reverence some have for Fyodor Dostoevsky and his stenographer wife Anna. That was a long time ago, but the writing survives. Writing and creative works are valuable. Our United States government therefore protects creative works by giving them all copyright upon creation. Have you ever drawn a unique character or written a unique poem? It was copyrighted. The government must also balance this against the public interest. If we cannot reproduce portions of creative works, then how can we discuss them meaningfully? If we cannot discuss things, how can we advance? This is where fair use comes in. In my layperson, non-lawyer nutshell, fair use is basically using stuff for parody, public commentary, non-commercial use. There’s no one-size-fits-all glove for this issue. By protecting discovery via patent, creativity via copyright, and brand by trademark, the government has attempted to balance the importance of incentivizing creators by awarding them exclusive rights with the importance of free speech, education, public interest, and debate.
A good marker for this is “am I profiting or benefitting from ripping off this person’s work in a way that is not transformative, educational, or artistic?” For example, if I was to take the text from a book like Tomas by our fellow court reporter Jason Meadors and start distributing it for free on Google Docs, I would be violating his copyright, or if he’s sold or shared copyright privileges, I would be violating the owner of the copyright’s rights. Think about it. I’m not doing anything transformative or funny with it. Meanwhile, if I tell you it’s a great book that I started reading years ago, and somebody in my household threw it out without my permission, and now I have to buy a new one because of them, it’s now more in the realm of fair use if I use an image. I’m teaching you about it. I’m showing you what it is. I’m not devaluing the book because you have to buy it to see the full work. This becomes even more true if I tell my audience it’s great, five stars on Amazon, and really worth a read. I mean, just look at the cover image. It’s about a man with healing powers, and it’s practically designed to make stenographers everywhere cringe*.
Of course, if I really wanted to be safe, I would ask permission. But sometimes that’s not an option or a waste of time. For example, in my prior posts about big companies and digital reporting, some images that they almost certainly own copyright to were used, but then not talking about what’s going on is going to hurt minorities and society as a whole, so I have confidence that it all falls under fair use.
Another important distinction is creative work versus fact. Data publishers do not generally own a copyright on their charts, graphs, and so forth because it is not creative. Again, discoveries and inventions are protected by patents. Our work has this same problem. We are not creating when we take down verbatim notes, we are preserving facts, and that is why we do not get any kind of copyright. We can ask legislatures for copy protection, but we’d need a bigger media presence first in my estimation.
Why go into all this? I just said it. We need to get serious about media and boundaries. We need to know what can be copied and what cannot. Now, just because something is arguably fair use does not mean copyright creators won’t make threats. Anybody can threaten to sue or file a lawsuit. Anyone could file a lawsuit right now against me in Richmond County that says “Chris Day is a bad man and owes me a million dollars.” Chances are high they’d let it be filed and I would have to defend against it. The question is will that person win? And the answer when it comes to copyright is that if it falls under fair use, chances are high they will not. It’s very similar to the adage about criminal justice, you can avoid the RAP but not the ride.
In short, feel free to use my stuff. Be careful about using others’ stuff. But realize that we do not always need to get permission and that it is in fact harmful to impose the need to get permission on ourselves in matters of public importance and education.
*I didn’t talk to Jason about this post at all and am not making any money from this. Now go buy his book. If fantasy is more your jam, my dad writes Mystic Faerie War**.
**I’m a bad son and didn’t ask dad’s permission either. But his passion has always been writing and it’s been so many years of hard work to promote his stuff, so I assume he won’t sue me. Just to be safe though, I’m going to claim fair use and parody this one.